The Marine Corps has a saying that, when things get serious, it doesn’t matter if you’re a cook, a truck driver, clerk or radio operator. When the shit hits the fan, everyone’s a rifleman. As a result, every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is trained in basic rifle marksmanship and required to regularly qualify with their primary weapon, currently the M-16A4 rifle.
The rationale being that, since modern warfare is marked by fluid, often unpredictable battle lines and that even rear echelon support troops may find themselves in armed combat at a moment’s notice, every Marine must be proficient in basic marksmanship. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no more “front lines” in today’s battlefield.
The Internet – The Primary Weapon for Modern Business
A similar case can be made for a basic understanding of technology, in particular Internet technology, in the context of modern business. Whether you’re an accountant, supply chain manager, banker, salesperson, or marketer, the Internet is an integral part of your job.
Technology is everywhere, and the Web continues to upend and disrupt nearly every aspect of business. Organizations at the forefront of this trend are integrating processes and systems all along the value chain and one is hard-pressed to find roles not dramatically affected by this. GE is now employing social computing to improve their industrial manufacturing processes and is integrating sensors that use TCP/IP and wireless protocols to optimize the efficiency of wind turbines. From procurement to logistics, over sales planning, POS, accounting, billing, payments and customer service, formerly disparate systems are increasingly integrated via networks built on Internet standards. And, in most cases, these systems are being accessed primarily via the Web (or Web-based technologies), often through a multitude of channels, including smart phones and other mobile devices. This not only streamlines business processes, reduces errors and cuts cost, but also increases speed and transparency.
Marketing in the Digital Age
One area that has been affected dramatically by the Internet is marketing. Today’s marketer works in an environment that is fundamentally different in just about every aspect from what he may have encountered as recently as a decade ago. With the rise of digital platforms, marketing has become far more complex, more fluid, and, importantly, more measurable. And yet many of today’s marketers have failed to evolve and often lack the technical skills and fundamental understanding of the Internet needed to most effectively employ the tools at their disposal.
It used to be that IT was a separate department that other functional areas called upon when they needed their PC connected to the printer or a piece of software installed. Accountants, sales people, supply chain managers, and, yes, marketers would go about their daily business blissfully unaware of what made the network run or how exactly their e-mail got to where it needed. Information technology was considered a cost center, not a source of competitive advantage or differentiation. All that has changed and many companies now – from retailers, to publishers, financial services companies, and consulting firms – derive a significant portion of their revenue from online activities. Digital technology is now so pervasive, affecting so many aspects of business in such fundamental ways, that many experts question if it even makes sense anymore to have IT as a separate department. Instead, technical expertise and digital fluency are now such an integral component of just about any business function, that these skills need to permeate each and every part of the org chart.
A Series of Tubes
When the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens described the Internet as “a series of tubes” back in 2006, he was roundly ridiculed by pundits and members of the digerati. Ironically, he was charged with oversight and regulation of the Internet at the time. But ask a random sample of marketing folks to explain the basic building blocks of the Internet – things like HTTP, TCP/IP, HTML and similar – and you just might find that the late Senator had a better grasp of things back then than many marketers can muster now. And, while many eagerly employ industry buzzwords like Big Data, real-time analytics, business intelligence, cross-media publishing and more, few can describe what they actually mean and even less could write an SQL query or build and launch a simple Website.
Now many of you may interject that there is no need to understand the technical underpinnings of these tools and concepts in order to use them. And, if your job is merely to write content for your Website or place media buys, you may be right. To a point at least. But if your role goes even just a little beyond that – and, let’s face it, most do – you’d be dead wrong. For even those simple tasks require at least a basic understanding of SEO, a grasp of how your content management system works, or how media buys are priced dynamically based on variable CPM rates, how to identify or avoid click-fraud, and a multitude of other factors that affect success.
If you’re in an only slightly more responsible role, you may be called upon to research and identify new marketing automation software, or help assess the cost, time, and effort to integrate your CRM platform with the new e-mail marketing system. Without a basic grasp of how these work, all you have to go on is the information provided by vendors or consultants. How would you know if an estimate is too high or, as often happens, unreasonably low? There are common reasons why most IT projects come in over budget, are completed late or fail altogether and, next to poor planning and project management (and I would argue that both of these are related to technology as well), a lack of technical understanding by key decision makers is often a root cause.
Trust – But Verify
For how can you or your team evaluate a proposal or tool without understanding both the business requirements and the technical criteria needed for it to work, especially when the two are so closely intertwined? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a vendor tell me their system is “basically plug-and-play” and offers all you could ever want or need “out-of-the-box” with only some “minimal configuration”, I’d be a wealthy man. The fact is, IT is complex. And it has to be in order to solve the complex business problems that need to be addressed. Sure, the CRM system your company is considering looked easy and worked flawlessly during the vendor demo, but how much time and effort was put into preparing that slick presentation? And just because your consultant – who, let’s remember, is paid by the hour – says that adapting the system to your processes and integrating it into your environment is “straightforward”, doesn’t make it so.
But bad IT purchase decisions and failed projects are but one symptom of inadequate technical knowledge within many organizations, albeit a very visible one. Much more prevalent – and insidious – are persistent under-performance and missed opportunity, which can often go undetected for years. The effects can be corrosive and will often lead to a vicious circle that feeds on itself and becomes self-reinforcing as more tech-savvy team members become frustrated and seek opportunities with organizations that “get it” and value their expertise.
Survival is Optional
The fact is, technical competence is increasingly important, regardless if you’re a project manager, analyst, or even a sales or account director. The days when a fellow like Tom Smykowski could get by on just “people skills” are over, today’s interconnected business calls for more. Much more. But, worry not, your company will most likely adapt and survive. The question many marketing professionals should ask though is whether they will. Younger, more tech-savvy employees are coming up quick. I was reminded of this just the other day by my 12-yo daughter. Previously, I had learned of her holiday wish-list from a letter to Santa written in crayon. This year’s list, which included a request for an iPad and a new smart phone, came to me via e-mail containing a link to Google Docs. And, just to be sure “Santa” – not always known for his technical prowess – got it right, she had included links to the exact products on retail Websites and photos of the desired items on Pinterest and Instagram.
Online collaboration via Google Docs, integrated with social media and delivered using the Internet. All this by a 12-yo child in seventh grade. I work with senior digital marketing leaders at Fortune-500 companies nearly every day and many of them would not be able to pull this off without help.